As a child Michael Stephenson wanted to be an actor, but his career essentially began, eclipsed, and ended with the 1990 crapsterpiece Troll 2. Life moved on and so did Stephenson. Then a few years ago Stephenson experienced an unexpected career diversion when he decided to make a documentary about the bizarre and sincere fanbase that Troll 2 developed over the past twenty years. That doc was the wonderful Best Worst Movie, which is not only a hilarious documentation of Troll 2‘s absurd production and rebirth, but also a shockingly moving and inspirational exploration of why human beings make and love cinema. But did Stephenson capture lightning in a bottle? The story and material for Best Worst Movie were ripe for the picking, which made it difficult to assess just how much Stephenson really put into the film himself. With his second film, the documentary The American Scream, Stephenson proves that he didn’t simply get lucky with BWM. Stephenson has a real skill for conveying the heart and hope of the great creative pursuit in the least likely of subjects.
The American Scream follows three different families in the same small Massachusetts town who all partake in “home haunting” every Halloween, transforming their suburban yards into elaborate haunted houses. The subject matter is primed for mockery, and obviously at times there is no way to avoid laughing at some of the sillier or more clueless things the characters do, punishing themselves and their families in quest of such an outwardly small activity as Halloween decorating. But Stephenson does not stay detached. He gets to the bone and marrow of why so many people love Halloween, past the obvious surface explanations of horror movies and monsters. He gets to the sense of community, of family, of making up for lost childhoods, of creative expression, and most poignantly, of leaving a mark in the lives of children. It is a special little movie that made me cry more than once. And I was honored to sit down in Austin with Stephenson, as well as producer Meyer Shwarzstein, and the film’s most compelling home haunter, Victor Bariteau.
The interview contains some very minor spoilers, regarding the film’s epilogue. I’ll give you a heads up…
Josh: Michael, tell me a little bit about where you found yourself after Best Worst Movie, now suddenly being the director of a buzzed-about documentary. How did you find yourself tackling home haunters?
Michael Stephenson: I had started working on a script with Zack Carlson (producer; programmer at Alamo Drafthouse) called Destroy – a narrative movie, it’s a dark comedy/horror – and I had got to know Meyer during Best Worst Movie, and out of the blue [he came to me with the idea] of homemade haunted houses. He was so enthusiastic, and you could tell it was very close to his heart and right off the bat I connected with it. Cause I grew up in a small town. And I had the person that everybody thought was weird because she wasn’t really part of the neighborhood. Until Halloween came and her whole house transformed — kind of a backyard wooded haunt. I immediately was like, “This is a great idea.”
Josh: When did the relationship with the Chiller network start?
Meyer Shwarzstein: The whole thing was brought about by a meeting with Chiller. Because Chiller was acquiring Best Worst Movie; they were big fans of the film. And one of the guys there essentially asked me, “So what’s Michael working on next?” And I said, “I don’t know.” So I’m sitting there thinking and I threw out, “Well, what if we made a movie about homemade haunted houses?” They said, “That’s great!” Then I thought, “Okay cool. Uh, I guess now I need to call Michael.” So I called him up and I said, “So how do you feel about doing a movie on homemade haunted houses?” And as he said he just immediately liked it. It was great. [Chiller] fully embraced it, right from the get-go. They kept having this instinct to try to put their hands on it, and to form it a bit. And what really impressed me, and surprised me with them, was that they found it within themselves to have restraint. Eventually it was more like they were protecting a little flame and as they saw it develop and saw what it was becoming they increasingly felt more and more comfortable and gave it more and more space. And I think that’s something that companies, whether their networks or studios, or whoever are involved in the financing of things, it’s one of those skill sets that needs to be developed — it’s not just about knowing how to guide something. But how to not guide something, and how to let it evolve on its own. And I think that Chiller showed an executive maturity on their behalf. And that’s extended all the way down to them supporting the film playing [at Fantastic Fest] and allowing it to play in theaters before it premieres on the network.
Josh: Since they gave you all this freedom and were allowing you to explore the subject in the directions you wanted to, I’m curious, when you started on the project what did you see as the theme of the film? Did you have an angle you were planning to take or did you have to discover the film’s soul as you went along?
Stephenson: It’s interesting. Going into it there is the obvious angle of it being an interesting look at unusual artists. And creativity and people who work with their hands. So naturally there is a wonderful visual element to it. But the thing that was to me right off the bat was being able to examine families and communities and friendships all working together in this fun space, in the spirit of creation, bringing something together to be enjoyed by people for really great reasons. People don’t get paid to do this. This is all out of passion. And it’s one of those things – I feel really lucky, cause when you start a documentary you have those things that you want, and you have ideas. We didn’t go into it thinking, “Let’s just see what we find.” [All the things that I wanted] fell into place strangely. And in each step of the way you know you’re on the right path because things keep supporting you. It was weird. From the beginning it was a process of moving forward and having another stone put in place, moving on to that stone, and [it was like that] all the way to the end.
The haunting side was interesting. And I could connect with Halloween and people who do it. But I saw the framework of a story that was much more personal and intimate and meaningful. And driven by these people’s passion and artistry.
Star Manny Souza and director Michael Stephenson
In the pre-production process, due to budgetary realities, Stephenson and his crew had to find a single location on which to focus. Stephenson knew he wanted the film to take place in the northeast, feeling that the area best visually represented classic Halloween imagery. A search led him to Fairhaven, Massachusetts to interview Victor Bariteau. When Victor informed Stephenson that his friend and neighbor down the street, Manny Souza, also did home haunting, Stephenson knew he’d found the perfect town. Fairhaven turned out to be even more perfect than Stephenson could have hoped when a couple weeks into production he learned that the sleepy hamlet had yet another home haunting family, Richard and Matt Brodeur.
Josh: Victor, when they first came to you, did you have any trepidations about their intentions? Where you ever worried this was going to turn out like a Daily Show segment, with them serving you up as some kind of absurdity for ridicule?
Victor Bariteau: Actually, yes. Especially when we were signing the contracts — the contracts look like reality TV contracts.
Shwarzstein: They were my contracts, and yeah, they’re crazy.
Bariteau: So yeah, that was kind of scary. But after that I never really thought about it that way. Until I saw the commercials on Chiller. And they put goofy music on it in the background and I thought, “Uh oh.”
Stephenson: (laughing) That was not us.
Bariteau: Oh I know. But after reading up on it and seeing what they were doing – and of course finally seeing it last night – I’m very happy. Originally I thought they were just going to show me building props and show people going through the haunt and the whole bit. But then they started interviewing family members and asking for old pictures and now I was getting worried. Where’s that going? But I loved what they did, especially with my family.
Josh: How does your family feel about how they’re presented now that they’ve had a chance to see the film? [Victor's wife and two daughters were in attendance for the Fantastic Fest premiere.]
Bariteau: You know, I haven’t actually had a chance to talk about it with my wife. She and [my youngest daughter Gwen] went home last night. My daughter Catherine is loving all this though. She loved the film and she’s still berating me for my language in it. [Victor drops a few F-bombs when he gets angry.] She’s very inspired by it. She wants to be a director.
It was nice to see some honesty from my wife [in the film]. She won’t say things to my face, because she doesn’t want to hurt me. She wants to support me. It was nice hearing some of the things she says. And seeing how I treat some of my friends [during hectic home haunting construction sessions], which can be kind of horrible. It was eye-opening seeing how I torture my friends and my family. And they still love me for it.
Josh: I gotta say, I felt like the film’s secret theme was that Catherine was super cool. I thought the film’s first huge moment [during the screening] was when Catherine takes out her box of mutilated Barbies and says, “I hate Barbies.” And the audience just lost it.
Victor, Gwen, Catherine and Tina Bariteau
Josh: Victor, was there anything in the film that you wish they hadn’t put in?
Bariteau: There were actually some things that they didn’t put in that I’m very grateful for!
Josh: I won’t ask you what those things are.
Bariteau: I will say that those scenes of me swearing and my kids right next to me, I just sunk in my chair. That was hard to hear that coming out of my mouth. I know that I can get caught up in the moment and forget that the cameras are there when I’m angry. I really hated myself at that point.
Josh: It really wasn’t bad at all. That just shows what a good dad you are.
Stephenson: I actually sympathize with you. Because I see something that means a lot to you. And I don’t see it as you being a jerk or a bad father or anything like that at all. I see you as somebody with purpose and with passion. [I put those scenes of you swearing in there for a reason.] Everybody can identify with someone who allows themselves to be vulnerable. That’s part of human nature. I think the most unlikable people are the ones portrayed as perfect and having no flaws.
Bariteau: In our interviews there were some things that got said about my childhood and some mischief I’d gotten into. And after I said it I took Mike aside and I said “Please don’t put that in the movie. I don’t want my kids to think of me as a hooligan.” And you said, don’t worry about it. And really after that I trusted him with everything he did.
Stephenson: (joking) That scene will be in the DVD extras.
Josh: Victor, how weird is it, the trajectory of your life, to suddenly be the star of — well, any kind of movie whatsoever?
Bariteau: It is just so strange. Cause it isn’t something I sought out and there are people who want this attention. And we live in a small town. I mean, I like the attention I get from the community. But this isn’t something that drove me. I don’t want to be famous. Not that this makes me famous. But to be sitting here in an interview and to have signed [posters]. It is surreal to me. It’s been a great experience and I know it isn’t something that’s going to come along in my life again. It’s just fun. A great ride.
Minor spoiler begins now…
Inspired by doing the film, Victor is staging a professional for-profit haunted house this year.
Josh: Have you been trying to talk Chiller into premiering the film earlier in the month to help advertise your haunted house?
Bariteau: Ha. It’s true, I saw the date it was coming out and I thought, “Ahhh…” But Chiller has been pretty good. They asked my advice on building some props and they’ll be pushing [the film] the whole month. So I’m hoping that helps a lot.
Stephenson: We’re going back to Fairhaven to screen the film and I’m excited cause I’ll get to see the new haunt.
Josh: Will there be any supplemental material on the DVD about Victor’s new haunt?
Stephenson: Yeah, I’m sure there will be. We’re going to do some tutorials and stuff. I’m already thinking outside of Halloween and hauntings though. Victor is very talented in creating a sense of space in a setting. So for future projects I’m already thinking, here’s the guy who can build this set for me.
Shwarzstein: I don’t even want to tell you what I’ve been thinking about here. (to Stephenson) I’ll tell you later.
The American Scream will premiere on NBCUniversal’s Chiller network October 28 at 8:00 PM ET and will be screening in select theaters through November. Visit http://theamericanscreammovie.com/ for additional information on screenings.
The American Scream is also available through Tugg.com, a platform that allows people to choose the films they want to see at theater and create their own screenings for their community. Go here to request a screening in your town – http://www.tugg.com/titles/the-american-scream (note, the film will not be available through Tugg where there are current theatrical engagements).
For info on Victor’s new professional haunt visit GhoulieManor.com and watch the ad below…